AFP, published on Sunday, April 10, 2022 at 08:24
Farewell, “the most peaceful country in the world”? Several shootings and stabbings have disrupted Iceland’s usual calm in recent months, which police say are linked to criminal gangs.
The small nation of 375,000, which has topped the Global Peace Index since it was ranked in 2008, is more used to the crime stories in its famous thrillers than to the headlines.
“For Icelanders, a gun symbolizes sport or hunting,” said sociologist Helgi Gunnlaugsson.
“But in the collective consciousness, it’s very alien to use a weapon to protect yourself or to attack someone,” he told AFP.
Since 2000, there have only been four gun homicides on the island. But in just over a year there have already been four shootings, including one fatality.
The February 2021 killing of a man, who was shot dead in cold blood with nine bullets outside his home in a residential area of Reykjavík, shocked Icelanders. According to police, the murder was linked to organized crime.
“Criminal groups in Iceland are becoming increasingly organized,” analyzes criminologist Margrét Valdimarsdóttir. “They have more connections to international groups than we’ve seen before, which can be a challenge for our police force.”
In February, two personal clashes between already convicted people on drug trafficking, two days apart, ended in shootings in the city center of the capital.
“We are used to saying that it takes five to ten years to see in Iceland what we see elsewhere in Europe,” explains Runólfur Thórhallsson, Commissioner of the Icelandic Police Elite Unit.
“Obviously that worries us,” he admits.
– Unarmed Police –
Iceland is one of the few countries in the world where the police do not carry guns when performing their official duties.
Since late 2015, however, police cars have been equipped with handguns in special safes, a measure taken after the 2011 Oslo and Utøya attacks.
Only a limited number of police officers from the elite Viking Squad unit are permanently heavily equipped: bulletproof vests, semi-automatic weapons or even ballistic shields.
Established in 1982, its mission essentially consists of assisting the national police when the presence of weapons is reported. The number of their interventions has increased almost sixfold since 2014.
“We are seeing a trend where individuals in our criminal world are less reluctant to use guns, more with knives than with firearms,” notes Mr Thórhallsson, acknowledging that he is somewhat… disarmed to explain why.
If the upgrade of all law enforcement agencies in the country is not seriously considered, the Interior Ministry plans to equip the police with Tasers.
The latter would be in favour, but above all would ask for more resources, according to Fjölnir Sæmundsson, president of the national union.
With 682 police officers in 2021, Iceland has the lowest numbers in Europe behind Finland, according to Eurostat, with a level almost twice as low as the European average.
– A safe country –
Studlar, a government institution on the outskirts of Reykjavík, takes care of children and young people aged 12 to 18 with difficulties – drug problems, crime, serious behavior problems…
Its director, Funi Sigurdsson, says he’s also seen a slight increase in violent incidents.
For the 43-year-old family man, “some of the children who come to this facility knew from the age of six that they would end up here”.
“If we had intervened very well from that moment, maybe we could have prevented them from getting into this situation.”
Several of the people recently involved in paying bills also went through his facility.
But if the situation is worrying in a country not used to violence, it is not alarming, the experts point out.
“It is important to note that Iceland is still a country with an extremely low crime rate,” said Valdimarsdóttir.
“But at least according to the police, we are seeing more violent attacks in Iceland.”